Life in a time of plagues, floods and locusts isn’t easy, and the March What I’m Writing retreat was relegated to the subs bench of our writers’ kitchen tables. But by the magic of Zoom, we could still Dreamwrite, and so we did. I took them to the heel of post-Corona Italy, a beach just before sunset, and threw in some prompts all the way to the finished short story. Here’s Jo Winwood’s. Prompts in bold.
Dreamwriting 28th March 2020
The heat prickled my scalp and the salty tears stung the scratches on my cheek. Behind me an abandoned building with cats lounging in the afternoon heat. The man with the gun stares at me, his muscles taut beneath his tattered shirt. I can’t make out his expression, sunlight glints off his sunglasses ad I have to look away.
The small boat rises and falls on the waves and the men struggle to keep their balance. I can hear their voices, deeply intoning the words I know by heart but I can’t hear them clearly. Under my breath I mutter the final lines of the prayer and cross myself.
Across the bay the blue flashing light and siren move towards the village. Dust flies from the wheels and the vehicle vanishes from view.
I turn, pulled round by a leather gloved hand and stare up into Daniele’s face.
‘We did all we could. The end was quick and painless.’
I wipe a tear from my face and shrug. What is there to say? So many taken, so many yet to find.
He passes a silver flask and I sip the warm brandy. Fighting back a cough I tip the flask back again and drink until my mouth is burned numb.
I try to stand, stumble into Daniele’s arms and fight him off. Rocking on ridiculous heels I totter cross the shingle, putting distance between myself and the beach. I reach the abandoned building, clattering up the steps, scattering cats before me.
Inside is cool and dark, far away from the oppressive heat of the beach. I wander aimlessly through the large room, stepping over chairs and tipped up tables. On the wall is a handwritten menu, a monument to the time when this was a beach café. I imagine the tables laden with coffee and cake, the chatter and laughter, then pull myself up. Nostalgia will be the ruin of us. Don’t look back.
A door creaks open and Daniele and the priest stand before me.
‘It is over, signora. She is gone.’
The priest smiles at me and holds his hands out to me. I kneel before him, cross myself and begin to pray for all the lost souls, all the lost loved ones.
And Chrissie Metcalfes
It’s quiet. Far more quiet than it had been before…
No, I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want it to break the serenity of the sea, the view, the tranquillity we seem to have found after the brutal insanity.
He’s staring, and I can feel his eyes boring into my skin before I acknowledge his existence. I offer a small wave and a smile at the stranger and he returns it before we both go back to staring out to the boat gently riding the waves.
It all seems so distant now, like the vague memory of some apocalyptic movie. Except that…
The noise, shrill and frightening, as it was supposed to be, a remnant of our scary past. I don’t jump any more when it sounds. I just…
I exchange glances with the stranger again and he stands up. I notice his blue sorts at first – blue the same as the sea, a symbol of freedom – and he comes over to rest a hand gently on my shoulder.
Human touch. A connection, for so long forbidden but now so welcome. Even this calloused, rough paw against my skin feels… Something.
We have to feel something.
“We shouldn’t be out now,” he says, his voice deep but quiet and slightly gravelly as though he hasn’t spoken for some time.
Another connection as I catch his eyes, again blue like the sea. I feel a familiar ripple, something I haven’t felt in a while.
“No,” I say and look away, unable to hold back the feeling, unable to stop my body trembling. He’s still got his hand on my shoulder. His skin is still against my skin.
The things we took for granted before this started.
I rise to my feet and his hand drops away. He’s stood close. Too close.
Is it the heat or just this –whatever — that’s making my head spin right now?
“Are you OK?” He steps back as I feel myself wobble.
“Yes. Yes. I don’t have… It’s not… It’s the heat!” I defend myself knowing from the horror on his face that he thinks he’s just touched one of the last infected. He looks at his hand, the kindness gone from his eyes,
“Still, you should get inside.” He says, and walks with me towards the cafe.
He waits until I’ve creaked the door open and gone inside before he says
“Be well,” and nods, then lets out a deep, rough cough as he turns to walk away.